Top 10 1970s Marvels

A column article, Top Ten by: Jason Sacks

Yes, I'm a comic book reader of the 1970s. I cut my comics-reading teeth in that era. And what an era it was! The '70s was an decade when even the most exploitative sounding comics should end up being transcendent, when writers were free to create some of the most bizarre and amazing super-hero comics of all-time. It was an era in which the creators were king, and in which the post-Stan Lee era brought many different interpretations of the lessons that the Man had taught. The 1970s were an amazing time at Marvel. Please join me to read about my top 10 favorite Marvels from that era, then please jump on the message boards to share your choices! 

10. Omega the Unknown (Steve Gerber / Jim Mooney)

It's hard to put in words quite how much the '70s series Omega the Unknown meant to me. The first issue was released near Christmas of 1975, when I was 9 years old, and I still remember how much this odd comic book shocked and surprised me. Omega told the story of a young boy with the odd name of James-Michael Starling, who lived in the middle of nowhere with his parents, who were revealed as robots partway through the first issue. Meanwhile, a bizarre and colorful hero from another planet, with the ability to shoot power bolts out of scars in his hands that were shaped like the Greek letter omega, was protecting James-Michael. What was the connection between the boy and his hero? Why were the parents robots? The first issue promised so much.

And further issues in the comic's run were even more amazing. There was the spooky third issue in which the old Spider-Man villain Elektro took a handicapped boy hostage at the Jerry Lewis telethon, and the amazing second issue when Omega essentially decided not to fight the Hulk because it wasn't important to the hero that they fight. There were the amazing scenes at James-Michael's middle school, including the beating and near murder of his friend James Nedley, which left deep memories with me. Or the rats that lived in James-Michael's apartment, or the bizarre street-level villains like the Wrench and El Gato, men who you actually could imagine living outside your window. And of course, in the tenth and final issue, Omega was murdered by a bizarre villainess called Rub Thursday, who has recently come from the equally bizarre pages of co-writer Steve Gerber's series Defenders.

That tenth issue left a lot of secrets unrevealed, and it's no lie to say I've waited over thirty years to read the ending of the original series. I don't consider the ending that came several years later in the pages ofDefenders to be part of the same run. None of the original creators worked on that monstrosity, and I'd prefer to believe that it never existed, thank you very much. Instead, for much of my life I’ve played with the riddles at the heart of the original Omega the Unknown, trying to come up with an ending that worked well for me. It may not have been the perfect ending – it’s damn hard to create perfect endings, after all, but at least there could be some sort of conclusion, even if it was only in my mind. Such was the power of the original Omega the Unknown.

Looking back, it's easy to see why this comic worked so well, and most of the reasons come from the incredible work of the comic's creators. Co-writer Steve Gerber was at the top of his game in '75. He had been a ridiculously productive writer for Marvel for about four years, often writing five comics per month for them. In that era, it was all about producing the pages as long as the comics sold, so Gerber was pretty much left alone by Marvel's editors to do whatever he wanted. Thus Gerber produced one of the most magical and amazing runs of any writer in Marvel's history. He somehow turned Man-Thing, which started out as a simple swamp monster strip, into an intensely moving meditation on the complexities of life in Florida in the '70s. Gerber took the Defenders, which had been a straightforward super-hero strip, and turned it into an amazing exploration of the absurdity and craziness of modern life. (The signature moment of his Defenders run was with a group of cheerleaders with faces painted like clowns, chanting 'bozos, bozos, we're all bozos'") And Gerber's work on his signature creation, Howard the Duck, is near legendary for its acerbic satire of both Marvel comics and America in the post-Watergate era.

Gerber, in short, was writing so much and so freely that words seemed to be channeled directly from his subconscious onto the printed page. In reading Gerber's comics we were able to see Gerber himself, through a funhouse mirror. And Omega simply showed another facet of Gerber's personality.

Gerber himself has admitted that he was always had trouble writing super-hero comics. His half-hearted tenure on Sub-Mariner likely led to the title's cancellation, while his run on Daredevil was fairly uninspired until the last few issues of his run. Even Gerber's eight-issue run writing team-up stories of the Thing inMarvel Two-In-One emphasized character over action, and provided an intriguing take on the life of Benjamin J. Grimm.

So Omega, with all its obscurities and complexities, can in some ways be seen as Gerber's final word on the super-hero. No matter how hard he tried to avoid costumed heroes, they were pretty much inescapable at Marvel, then as well as now. Omega represented Gerber's chance to create a super-character whom one could imagine in the real world, or at least Gerber's view of mid-'70s era New York. The fact that the hero rocketed to Earth from his own planet, and that he wore a blue and red costume, and that he was illustrated by Supergirl's longtime artist Jim Mooney, just added a touch of irony to the comic.

9. Doctor Strange (Steve Englehart / Frank Brunner / Gene Colan)

Doctor Strange has historically been one of the most difficult characters in the Marvel universe to write. His powers don't intuitively make sense, his battles seem abstract and bizarre, and his world is very cloistered and small. Lee and Ditko (mostly Ditko) set the groundwork, and Thomas and Colan had a nice interlude with the character, but the only time Doctor Strange seemed really relevant was during the 1970s.

Maybe that was appropriate since it was an era in which many people seeked spiritual happiness by exploring their mystical sides, which was the approach that writer Steve Englehart took to the book.

"When I wrote [Doctor Strange] in The Defenders, he was just a super-hero who had magical shticks." Englehart reports. When I started writing about him as himself, I thought if I'm going to write about a magician, I really ought to learn something about magic. So I started studying tarot and astrology, and as I learned things I was feeding them back into the book. So Strange, for me, became a way of imparting mystic knowledge that I was picking up elsewhere."

And what knowledge! In Englehart's very first story, illustrated in the most gorgeous cosmic style by the amazing Frank Brunner, Doc met God, saw the world end and then saw it reborn. Soon thereafter Strange died (he got better), met the Founding Fathers during the Revolutionary War, lived his own version of Alice In Wonderland, and even played with the reader's sense of reality!

Aided and abetted by Brunner and the Dean of comics, Gene Colan, Englehart presented a fascinating, philosophical and wonderfully fun series that was the perfect book for its times.

8. Avengers (Steve Englehart / Sal Buscema / George Perez / Various)

Amazingly, for most of its first 150 issues - some 13 years - Avengers only had three writers: Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart. And all three writers brought their own very unique stamp to the book. Stan brought the book a sense of anything-can-happen, seemingly shifting the team's roster at will to meet his whims. Thomas brought a level of literacy and intelligence to the series, and introduced the team's most iconic character, the Vision. And Englehart emphasized the comic's attributes as being kind of an extended and warm family, a club that heroes would clamor to join and have their own very wacky adventures.

Englehart brought the bouncing Beast to the Avengers, giving Hank Pym a laid back California surfer boy attitude that perfectly fit the times. He brought us the Hellcat, the happy-go-lucky Patsy Walker who lucked into her costume.

Perhaps most memorably, he gave us two characters who initially seemed to be tremendously ill-suited for the ranks of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, Mantis and the Swordsman, and made them the centerpieces of maybe the best-loved saga in Avengers history, the "Celestial Madonna" saga. He was a loser of a villain with low self-esteem who reached his cosmic fruition as an intelligent space plant (don't ask), while she was a Vietnamese prostitute with a strange speech tic who ended up birthing a kind of space Christ.

If that didn't pay off the idea that Stan presented of a reader never knowing what would happen, I don't know what would!

And that's without mentioning the Avengers/Defenders War, or the origin of the Vision, or the awesome battle with the Squadron Supreme... really, super-heroes seldom got better than this in the '70s.

7. Conan (Roy Thomas / Barry Windsor-Smith / John Buscema)

Any celebration of Marvel in the '70s has to include this comic that is in so many ways emblematic of that decade.

Roy Thomas took a big chance when he decided to try to license the rights to Conan from the estate of Robert E. Howard, but it was a chance that paid Marvel back hugely. The giant barbarian from Cimmeria was the ideal hero for his time, and quickly became one of the first real fan hit of its time.

It helped that Conan was one of Marvel's most consistent quality comics. Whether drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith or by John Buscema, the comic was in the hands of some of the most empathetic draftsmen of its time. It's hard to imagine the character of Conan without thinking of the constant scowl that Buscema gave him, or the amazing and bizarre settings that Smith established for the character.

But of course the man most closely identified with Conan in that era was Thomas, who was the series' only writer for the entire decade. Thomas by that time had written hundreds of comics and had an instinctive sense of what would work on a comics page. And of course he seemed to have a great feeling for the world that Howard had created, delivering adaptations and new stories that perfectly suited the character. 

6. Master of Kung Fu (Doug Moench / Paul Gulacy / Mike Zeck / Gene Day)

What, a kung fu exploitation comic on the list of 10 best Marvels of the '70s? What am I, crazy?

Well, yeah, I am a bit crazy but that's not the point here.

This series, along with the comic that comes next in this list, represent good arguments for the time-honored truism of never judging a book by its cover. Because MOKF was a damn fine comic book, and really a perfect illustration of why the '70s attitude of real artistic freedom was so important.

Master of Kung Fu was the tale of Shang-Chi, son of Fu Manchu (yes, the yellow menace Fu Manchu) who ends up joining the MI6 and living the life of a spy in swinging London. Along with his friends, who included James Bond's son and a beautiful female friend for Shang named Leiko Wu, Shang fought the good fight and often delved deeply into philosophy for most of the '70s, thanks to the adept writing of Doug Moench.

The history of this book really splits into three eras.

The first era, illustrated by Paul Gulacy in his best Steranko-imitating style, presented dynamic spy action, delivered with some of the slickest and most interesting page layouts comics have ever seen. These comics made Gulacy a star in his time, and it's easy to see why when you look at these comics.

The second era, illustrated by Mike Zeck, tended to delve more into philosophy as Shang broke away emotionally from his father's influence and began to find his way in the adult world.

But the third era was my real favorite. Gene Day illustrated that era of Shang Chi's life, and his ornate page layouts and deep and supple ink line was gorgeously compelling.

No matter what era you check out contains thoughtful writing and some very intense artwork. It's a shame that the rights for this series seem to be permanently in limbo, because this comic is crying out for the super-deluxe reprinting treatment.

5. Tomb of Dracula (Marv Wolfman / Gene Colan / Tom Palmer)

It's an incredibly daunting challenge: how do you create a memorable comic series that has as its main character one of the most evil characters in all of fiction? Amazingly, Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan and Tom Palmer managed to do exactly that. How do you find depth and a compelling and interesting center when you're depicting a character that has so often been portrayed in two dimensions?

Wolfman approached the series in a very interesting way. He focused on the large and interesting supporting cast, bringing them all vividly to life with small and telling character moments that helped to illustrate Drac's incredible impact on everyone whose life he'd touched. But Wolfman also managed to make Dracula seem three-dimensional and complex in very fascinating ways. We couldn't see the Lord of Vampires as human, but we could see him fall in love and have a child, feel betrayal and hatred far deeper than any human could feel; in short, Marv Wolfman made Dracula one of the most compelling main characters of his era.

Let's let Wolfman explain how he approached the book, as described in a 2001 interview published inComic Book Artist #13: "Even though [Tomb of Dracula is about Quincy Harker, and Rachel, and Frank and Taj and Saint the dog, and Blade and all of the other ones, it all comes down to that, the book is about [Dracula's] effect on them, and if he's not a character who has three dimensions, or as close to three dimensions as I can make him, then he's not going to work. You have to believe the evil before you."

It didn't hurt the series at all that Wolfman got to collaborate with Gene Colan on this series. Colan was the ideal illustrator for this comic, continually doing a brilliant job of making this large set of characters feel real - especially the complex and mysterious being whose name is in the title.

4. Captain America (Steve Englehart / Sal Buscema)

For his third visit to this list, Steve Englehart once again takes a moribund comic and brings it to vivid, exciting life. When he took on the series, Captain America was very close to cancellation. Within a year,Cap was one of the best-selling books in the line.

What's the reason for the book's success? As usual, I'd attribute much of the success to its having a thoughtful and caring writer who invested much personal enthusiasm into the series. As Steve Englehart states in a 1998 interview published in Comic Book Artist #2, "I liked him. I did not share his patriotic sensibilities. He wanted to volunteer for the Army. I didn't want to get anywhere near the Army, but I had no choice. But I never condescended to him. Here was a guy, he was a 1940s guy, and he was living in the 1970s. To me that was a large component of what that book was supposed to be about. Once you start saying, 'Okay, he's real,' everything kind of flows out of that."

But what an amazing reality Captain America lived in! Englehart's run started with one of the most famous and interesting stories of its era, one of the very first continuity implants ever seen in comics. If you remember your Captain American history well, you'll remember that our hero was trapped in a block of ice during the 1950s. So why was he active in the '50s fighting Communists? It turns out that a different man took on the mantle of the red, white and blue, a man who's gone dangerously insane by the early 1970s. It was a great storyline seeing Cap the idealist right Cap the fascist Commie hater, and the storyline instantly declared that Steve Englehart was a major talent in his time.

But the high point of Englehart's run on the book came a few years later, at the culmination of a battle with the mysterious Secret Empire. The Secret Empire was hell bent on destroying America, and who should end up being the leader of the Empire but a very evil Richard Nixon, right at the apex of the Watergate scandal. It was a devastating storyline that perfectly fit the times, providing incredibly compelling reading.

There's no doubt that Stainless Steve was one of the most important and influential writers of his era.

3. Black Panther (Don McGregor / Billy Graham / Rich Buckler)

Waiting for the trade. Writing for the trade. These are common ideas these days, but in the '70s, they were extremely unusual. During that era, it was rare for a super-comic to be created as a closed circle. But there were a few exceptions. And, naturally, being a decade of experimentation (for better or for worse), there were experiments at comics that told complete and self-contained story arcs. And perhaps the first and best of those experiments was Don McGregor's epic Black Panther storyline "Panther's Rage."

Marvel had produced many great comics in the '60s and '70s, but "Panther's Rage" is the first comic that was created from start to finish as a complete novel. Running in two years' issues of Jungle Action (#s 6 through 18, cover-dated Sept. 1973 - Nov. 1975), "Panther's Rage" is a 200-page novel that journeys to the heart of the African nation of Wakanda, a nation ravaged by a revolution against its king, T'Challa, the Black Panther. 

Writer Don McGregor's intelligent and passionate novel explored the country and its ruler, chronicling the often complex and contradictory impulses felt by people in real life. There is pulse-pounding action and excitement in this arc, but with an interesting philosophical side. It's really like no other comic written before and since, and works extremely well as a complete novel.

Thankfully Marvel has recently released a Masterwork version of this series. Believe me when I tell you that the $60 investment is well worth it for this amazing book.

2. X-Men (Chris Claremont / John Byrne)

It's hard now to remember just how galvanizing and revolutionary the Claremont X-Men seemed at the time when it first started coming out. 

The genius of the book definitely didn't rest in the fact that it was a team book. Other series launched at around the same time as X-Men and none of them really caught on in the same way that this series did.the Champions and The Invaders never really caught the fans' imaginations in the same way that this series did. But why? Was there any reason why a team of mutants caught peoples' imaginations when a group of LA-based super-heroes or World War II super-heroes did not?

I think the reason this series caught on is because of the characterization. As readers we quickly grew to care about these quirky and complex characters, and saw them grow as both individuals and as part of a group. 

Chris Claremont spend a lot of time and space in getting readers to care about characters like Ororo and Logan, and that characterization felt very fresh and unique at that time. it always felt like Claremont had a plan for his characters' back stories and was delighting at showing them all out on the printed page. We were constantly surprised by the complexity of Wolverine's life, for instance. From the moment we discover that Wolverine's claws were part of his skeleton, through to the moment that we discover he speaks Japanese, to the moment when he kills a Hellfire Club security guard in cold blood, this was a character who seemed to come alive in three dimensions under Claremont and Byrne.

There's no question that Byrne was a giant aspect of the comic's success. His art seemed to fit the comic and its era perfectly. It was a culmination of many pieces that fans found thrilling at the time, a combination of Neal Adams's slickness and Steve Ditko's fussiness. His characters seemed unique and alive, almost seeming to jump off of the page when shown in this comic.

During the Byrne era, the X-Men was both a commercial and critical blockbuster doing its own small part to bringing fans and readers into the kinds of comics that we would all experience in the '80s.

1. Defenders (Steve Gerber / Sal Buscema)

What, I hear you say. How could I rank a comic like Defenders above the Claremont/Byrne X-Men when the comic sold a mere fraction of what the mutant book sold?

Simple. This comic was amazing.

You've already read about my great love for Steve Gerber's work on Omega the Unknown, Gerber's grand attempt at creating a fascinating and transgressive satire of super-hero work. But whereas that series was a satire of DC comics, Gerber's work on Defenders was something much more subtle and interesting: a fascinating journey to the logical conclusion of the ideas and approaches that Stan Lee created in his comics.

Where Stan developed the idea that super-heroes should have deep flaws, Gerber took that idea to its logical conclusion. Stan's heroes had disabilities, but those disabilities were physical (Daredevil) or emotional (Spider-Man). Gerber's heroes, however, faced existential doubts about their abilities and their abilities to be great heroes. They faced devastating attacks that hit to the very core of who they were, attacks that brought a kind of profound existential angst that made these heroes seem so much more human.

There's no member of the Defenders more emblematic of that approach than Kyle Richmond, the hero known as Nighthawk. Created as a kind of satire of Batman, Kyle Richmond was a millionaire who put on a rocket pack in an effort to fight crime. But for all his attempts to be an ersatz Batman, Richmond's life was just too messy and complicated to allow him to become the hero that he wanted to become.

Richmond faced a whole series of events that destroyed his ego. Kyle's girlfriend nearly died when his car was the victim of a car bomb attack. Very quickly thereafter he found that his financial advisor, a black man, had betrayed Richmond to a group similar to the KKK. Not long afterwards, his brain was removed from his body and placed first in a jar and then into the body of a deer. All the while Richmond was aware of everything that happened to him and was feeling completely estranged from his life.

I don't want to spoil too much of what happens in these comics since you can pick up all of these comics in the Essential format. But suffice it to say that Richmond's existential problems are only a small part of the craziness that makes these comics so transcendently amazing. Really, if you've never read these comics, you must. They're as great as any comics that have ever been released by any comic company.

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